Otis Taylor isnâ€™t defined by any single category. A musical alchemist and a true innovator, Taylor has never been afraid to experiment beyond the blues tradition. Heâ€™s a master craftsman who has created his own signature â€œtrance bluesâ€ style by melding haunting guitar and banjo work, syncopated rhythms and a combination of gruff vocals, shouts and yells with raw passion.
â€œWhen I sing, I just do what I do,â€ Taylor says. â€œWhatever comes out â€” thatâ€™s the way I leave it. And if I make a mistake, I leave it in. I like to keep the emotion.â€ Otis Taylorâ€™s Contraband is evidence of that. Set for release February 13, 2012, on Telarc, a division of Concord Music Group, Taylorâ€™s new album finds the artist on familiar thematic terrain: love, social injustices, personal demons and war.
The album takes its title from an article that appeared in the May/June 2011 issue of Preservation Magazine about runaway slaves who during the American Civil War escaped to the Union lines at Fort Monroe, Va.. Known as â€œcontraband,â€ they lived in camps where conditions were often worse than life on the plantation.
Otis Taylorâ€™s Contraband isnâ€™t just speaking to the African American experience, but to the entire human experience. â€œIâ€™m not really a protest singer or even a very political person,â€ says Taylor. â€œI just try to tell an interesting story and let people interpret it as they wish.â€
On Otis Taylorâ€™s Contraband, the iconoclastic bluesman is reunited with several longtime collaborators including the supple-toned Ron Miles on cornet; pedal steel guitarist Chuck Campbell from American Sacred Steel gospel group the Campbell Brothers; djembe player Fara Tolno, a master drummer born in Guinea, West Africa; fiddler Anne Harris from Chicago, Ill.; and the Sheryl Renee Choir. Bass is handled by Taylorâ€™s daughter Cassie and Todd Edmunds. Rounding out the band are Jon Paul Johnson on guitar, Brian Juan on organ, and Larry Thompson, former house drummer for Coloradoâ€™s world-renowned Caribou Ranch recording studio.
The recording took an ominous turn in April 2010 when Taylor became victim of a serious illness and had to undergo major surgery. â€œI found out that I had a cyst connected to my liver and my spine,â€ he says. â€œIâ€™ve always had a bad back, but the cyst was as big as a softball and it was pushing on the nerves in my spine. It was a pretty serious thing. So I went into the studio three days before the operation and recorded seven acoustic songs . . . just in case. If you listen to parts of the album carefully, you can tell I was in excruciating pain.â€
Otis Taylorâ€™s Contraband offers 14 compelling originals. â€œThe Devilâ€™s Gonna Lie,â€ a rousing showcase for the entire band, opens the album with Taylorâ€™s trademark howls and a demonic laugh. As he writes in the liner notes, â€œWhen there is peace, the devil wants war. When there is love, the devil wants hate.â€ On â€œYell Your Name,â€ one of the projectâ€™s original seven acoustic tunes, Taylor sings about a man wants his lover to come back.
The insistent rhythm of another acoustic love song, â€œLook to the Sideâ€ spotlights the distinctive sound of Taylorâ€™s specially made electric banjo. Of the foot-tapping â€œRomans Had Their Way,â€ he says, â€œI wrote this song in the â€™60s when I was a kid, listening to groups like the Kinks. This is the only old song on the album â€” all the rest are new.â€
A stark meditation on race, â€œBlind Piano Teacherâ€ tells the story of a young black piano teacher who lives with an older white man, while a man begs a woman for compassion on â€œBanjo Boogie Blues.â€
With its swirling guitars and hypnotic lyrics, â€œContraband Blues,â€ a song about Civil War slaves who were held by the Union Army as contraband (or captured property), is the powerful centerpiece to the album. â€œDuring the Civil War, slaves were free, but not as people,â€ Taylor says. â€œWe donâ€™t usually think of people as contraband, but this is about treating humans as animals.â€
The bleak and haunting â€œOpen These Barsâ€ â€” the longest song on the album â€” refers to the Jim Crow years in the South, when a black man could be lynched for just looking at a white woman. On â€œYellow Car, Yellow Dog,â€ a poor man wishes he had money and could win the love of a woman. Taylor calls this â€œone of my more poetic songs.â€
â€œNever Been To Africaâ€ is the simmering tale of a black soldier whoâ€™s fought all over the world in World War I, but has never seen Africa. Thereâ€™s desperation in Taylorâ€™s voice when he sings â€œCold sweat running down my leg, I can feel the gas coming across my face, I know I donâ€™t believe in war, but Iâ€™ll fight anyway.â€
On the final track, â€œI Can See Youâ€™re Lying,â€ Taylor captures the energy and emotion of romance and relationships perfectly. â€œItâ€™s another one of my dark, twisted love songs,â€ he says.
By taking blues music as an art form to a higher level altogether, Otis Taylorâ€™s Contraband is both subtle and challenging. Another thought-provoking entry in his canon, Taylorâ€™s eighth Telarc album is the follow up to Clovis People, Vol. 3, released in May 2010.
â€œItâ€™s all a balancing act,â€ Taylor says. â€œA new album has to be different, but you canâ€™t be too different. It has to be the same, but not exactly the same. Itâ€™s like a riddle.â€